This water emergency event in Washington, DC is a similar situation that which occurred in Oklahoma City twice in early 2014. I was punished for trying to do something about it.
Water pressure in a system may drop for a number of reasons, such as a line break, a failure of electrical supply to pumps or–as reported in this featured case below of Washington, D.C.–a valve being turned off inappropriately. The problem is that when water pressure drops sufficiently, muddy water begins to intrude back into the water lines. It is impossible for the hundreds or thousands of miles of water line in a city to be absolutely free of the smallest of leaks. Every city lives with these. These tend not to cause structural problems and sufficient water pressure (by federal code, above 25 pounds per square inch) forces water out of the pipe, thus preventing the intrusion of potentially contaminated soil water back into the water system.
Testing for bacteria will take 24 to 48 hours for thorough collection of samples and the reporting of results to the public. In the case of Oklahoma City in 2014, OKC Water refused to communicate with Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality engineers. Within hours of a major loss of pressure, OKC water was reporting that the water was “safe to drink.” There could be no scientific basis to make this statement critical for public health.
Testing for contamination is a two-level analysis. The presence-absence test employed today, and accepted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is designed to reveal the whether two categories of bacteria are present. One is a broad category called the total coliform (bacteria). The other is a specific species of bacteria familiar to most people, Escherichia coli, or E. coli, for short. E. coli are the major component of the intestinal flora of warm-blooded animals, Thus, finding E. coli in a water sample is evidence of the presence of cross contamination of the drinking water from a source of fecal matter. This could be a nearby, leaky sewage line or an animal source too close to a well as just two examples.
Most strains of E. coli are considered harmless. In fact, their presence is essential for normal functioning of the digestion. It should be mentioned that there are some strains of E. coli that are harmful and can make people extremely ill. Oklahoma had a fatal outbreak of E. coli poisoning at a restaurant in 2008. This outbreak may have involved surfaces of food preparation, but that alone would not necessarily eliminate other factors as possible root causes and that were known to be present: kitchen workers with active diarrhea and an illegally opened and utilized water well. A young newlywed died in this event.
Most vulnerable are infants and the young, the elderly, those with chronic diseases and those with suppressed or weakened immune systems. But the presence of E. coli in drinking water would be a concern even if we knew that all strains of that contamination were harmless. Why? The reason is that, recall, E. coli is a sure indicator of fecal contamination. There are dozens of other fecal bacterial species that also could cause very serious illnesses and death. And it is not only bacteria that are a problem, but other biological agents such as protozoa and viruses like Norovirus. Oklahoma also had a very serious Norovirus contamination in 2008 that sickened many and resulted in hospitalizations.
Whereas the presence of the specific indicator of E. coli bacteria in drinking water is proof positive of fecal contamination, public heath officials have available to them the large class of naturally-occurring bacteria, the total coliform bacteria mentioned above. These bacteria are ubiquitous in soil, at least the group as a whole. Sample soil anywhere and you will find organisms falling into this group. Most of these organisms are harmless to humans. The presence of any number of bacteria from the very large group of total coliform bacteria is a useful indicator of a compromised water system (pipes or filters at the treatment plant, or inadequate treatment itself).
Another importance role that adequate water pressure plays is, of course, fire suppression. It is critical that cities maintain water systems in operable conditions. Gray water (unsuitable for drinking) could serve many uses excluding drinking–and many municipalities are exploring such options in parallel to the treated water supplies–but for most towns and rural water districts, treated water is the sole source for essentially all water needs.
David Schmitt, PhD, was the Total Coliform Rule Coordinator and was punished for trying–internally–to improve our agency’s response in such situations. The weight of a bad people in a bad organization came down upon him. When you ask, “Why don’t those government workers do make right when they see something wrong?” you can supply the answer yourself. The answer is that people, maybe you, do not support them when they try to fix corruption, fraud, illegal spying, graft, abuse–even murder. There are good workers and professionals in government, but they are often driven out. You can decide for yourself whether government workers who simply keep their mouths shut are “good people.” Truly good people have your best interests at heart. They are, perhaps, naïve–but they are dedicated and will suffer much in order to protect and serve the public to whom they believe they owe their duty: that is, The People, not the pensions of selfish and unethical managers.